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Balak Sermon

Our Torah portion gives us the Mah Tovu prayer, a prayer of unrivaled majesty and beauty, but one nonetheless authored by non-Jewish hands.   Let us take a few moments to explore the implications of its origins.

All of us have favorite poets and singers.  I love Derek Walcott as well as Yehuda Amichai.  I love Taj Mahal as well as David Broza.  What makes them our favorites?  It is that they speak to our hearts.  It is that they mirror our feelings and aspirations.  Does it matter whether the singer or poet is Jewish?

There are those who see outside influences as forbidden.  One need only recall the recent protests in Jerusalem.  There the Supreme Court is taboo.  There Sephardic customs are forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews.  In a bitter irony of modern Zionism, there are those in Jerusalem who wish to live in a ghetto of their own making.

Such is not my world!  Yet I am still plagued by the question, what is the influence of non-Jewish poems and prayers on our Jewish hearts?  Should we decry their voices or welcome their insights?

If I take too much of the outside world do I lose my Jewish identity? Can a Jew embrace yoga?  Should a Jew embrace an exercise stemming from another religious tradition?  Where do we draw the line?  If all our prayers were recited in English would we not feel comfortable?  If all not authored by Jewish hands do we then lose our connection to the Jewish people?  Does Jewish authorship guarantee Jewish aspirations?  Can Walcott capture my spirit as well as Amichai?

We live in two worlds.  We need to live in both worlds, with a foot in the Jewish world and a foot in the non-Jewish world.  If praying is also about seeking truth then believing that one language or one people has cornered this truth is not only troubling but contrary to the effort.

The most remarkable point about Mah Tovu opening our prayers is the implied admission that no one has a cornerstone on approaching God.  We are all just stumbling and grappling to express our feelings just as Bilaam stumbled from cursing to blessing.  Every prayer, every poem is only an attempt.